Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient is one of the most buzzed-about romances of the summer. “A unicorn . . . magical and one of a kind,” according to our reviewer, Hoang’s debut follows an autistic woman named Stella as she attempts to learn about love and dating by hiring a male escort. Through her research, Hoang discovered that not only were autistic women frequently undiagnosed, but that she was herself one of them.
Many months before I even conceptualized The Kiss Quotient, I had this feeling that I needed to try something new with my writing. I needed a change. But I didn’t know what that change was. I thought I might try writing in a new romance subgenre. (I’d been writing mainly fantasy romance.) Sci-fi maybe. Or historical in an uncommon locale and timeframe. Something new. Something wild. Maybe something taboo.
At my friend’s recommendation, I read an anthropological piece called Nightwork on hostess clubs in Tokyo and, as my friend expected, was fascinated. It made me want to write about a character in a similar profession, which naturally brought to mind Pretty Woman. The idea of flipping the genders of the characters captivated me, but I couldn’t figure out why a beautiful, successful woman would hire a male escort. The question lingered in the back of my mind as I went on with my life.
When my daughter’s preschool teacher suggested she was on the spectrum, I was completely shocked. She’s a handful, but she didn’t fit my preconceptions of autism. I did some research, and my findings weren’t in line with my girl’s traits. To be thorough, I asked my family and her pediatrician for their opinions, and their unanimous response was no, she wasn’t autistic. They had to be right, and I let it go. Mostly.
One trait from my cursory research lingered in my mind: trouble with social skills. That was something I could empathize with—and a compelling reason to hire an escort. (Yes, everything revolves around writing/stories for me.) What if the heroine in my gender-swapped Pretty Woman was autistic like my daughter wasn’t?
I began to research in earnest and found myself reading Rudy Simone’s Aspergirls, where I stumbled upon an interesting finding: There’s a major difference in the way autism is perceived between men and women. What I’d previously read described autistic men, but many autistic women, for a variety of reasons, mask their awkwardness and hide their autistic traits so they don’t draw notice. Even our obsessions/interests are generally tailored to be socially acceptable. Because of this, women often go undiagnosed or are diagnosed late in life, frequently after their own children receive diagnoses. Women with Asperger’s exist in what people call “the invisible part of the spectrum.”
As I read Aspergirls, I looked back at my own past and recalled so many things: difficulty with relationships and intimacy, all-consuming interests, social awkwardness, routines, repetitive motions, etc. What started as mere research for a book became a journey of self-realization. The woman I was reading about was me. And possibly my daughter. She was also Stella, The Kiss Quotient’s autistic heroine.
Through Stella and this book, I explored and embraced parts of myself that I’d never understood and always tried to hide, and this freedom translated into better writing. I stopped emulating other writers and found my own unique writer’s voice. Not only that, but the book became a therapy of sorts. I gave Stella my fears and insecurities, and she confronted them for me. Her “fresh and fabulous” regimen is basically how I lived my life prior to diagnosis (which I obtained while I wrote this book), and having her see the foolishness of her ways and accept herself was self-affirming for me. In early drafts of the book, Stella "came out" as autistic to the book’s hero, Michael, at the end. Even as I wrote those lines of dialogue, I knew I was practicing what I'd say to my own loved ones, and it gave me courage.
The inspiration for Michael came from my family. Well, and pictures of beautiful Daniel Henney. But mostly my family, and that made him deeply personal to me as well. I gave him my culture and mixed heritage, and his family members are close depictions of mine, particularly his grandma and mom. His struggle to balance his own desires with the needs of his loved ones is something I know intimately, though I’m not as heroic as I think he is.
By the time I finished writing this book, I felt like Stella, Michael and I had all grown together. The main conflict—a woman falling for her escort—isn’t something I’ve experienced, but the inspirations for the characters’ individual growth arcs were close and personal. If The Kiss Quotient resonates with readers, I think this is why.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Kiss Quotient.
Author photo by Eric Kieu.